Court battle to retain potrait of Omai
In the summer of 1776 a large broad-wheeled coach rolled into Scarborough’s South Bay with a party of six people on their way from York races to Whitby.
Among the well-heeled gentlemen was Omai, a Polynesian who had persuaded Captain Cook to take him from his home in Tahiti aboard the Whitby-built Adventure a few years earlier.
The exotic visitor who spent the afternoon on the Scarborough sands and the waters of “the German ocean,” is now at the centre of a tax dispute that is about to come to a final resolution.
The estate of Castle Howard, near Malton, had owned a Sir Joshua Reynolds portrait of Omai, the Gentle Savage, since 1792. It was sold for £9.4million at Sotheby’s in 2001 and ever since there has been a legal battle over whether capital gains tax should be paid.
The High Court is to consider the issue in a two-day hearing and will decide whether Omai’s life-size portrait should be subject to the Taxation and Chargeable Gains Act 1992.
Omai had been taken on a North Yorkshire tour by Sir Joseph Banks, the wealthy botanist who had paid to be part of Cook’s first voyage of exploration in the Endeavour. Also aboard the summer charabanc was Constantine Phipps, later Lord Mulgrave, whose family had an estate north of Whitby where Omai stayed and went shooting birds.
The trip to Scarborough was recorded by George Colman, a friend of Banks. He described how Omai waded up to sea at South Bay to his chin when everyone else was using the bathing machines. Omai then gave Colman a ride on his back in the water before they went on to Whitby to Mulgrave Castle.
The coach had trouble going up Upgang Hill in a journey described as “terrifying” but Omai was not fazed and while at Mulgrave caught a partridge “like a cat” and seized a horse’s tail as a means of obtaining a ride.
Omai, who was introduced to George III during his his long trip, was returned to Tahiti in 1777 aboard Cook’s third Whitby-built ship the Resolution.
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